“Your customers are the exchanges. You need to think about them first.” “Presentation is everything.”
These were some of the responses that were given by a panel of four venture capitalists to nine startup hopefuls who had two minutes to pitch their business presentation. The focus was Bitcoin and the investor panel included Andrew Chang of Liberty City Ventures, John Frankel of ff Venture Capital, Nikhil Kalghatgi of SoftBank Capital, and Matthew Witheiler of Flybridge Capital Partners.
Graham Lawlor and Tatiana Bakaeva of Ultra Light Startups hosted the two-hour event on the sixth floor of the Microsoft’s Midtown Manhattan office and a packed to capacity crowd was there to digest the pizza and ruminate on the future and the possibilities of the virtual currency which we’d hopefully soon learn more about.
After I checked in, grabbed my pizza and chose my seat, I reached for my phone to check LinkedIn. Being a complete newbie and wanting to know something about them, I entered the names of the four investors who were about to lead the discussion. All of them had either attended Harvard Business School, MIT or Oxford University with advanced degrees; each with long resumes of achievements and specialties. I was intimidated by their credentials and set out to challenge my assumptions about startups and learn something about a world I knew nothing about. I could only imagine the trepidation one feels in a room full of strangers, when all eyes are on you, with only two minutes to illustrate a business proposal, and the subject was Bitcoin, no less. I felt in good company: I know little about the tech world and the tech world, at the granular level, seems to know very little about Bitcoin, an open source, stateless digital currency, not based on the gold standard but seemingly inspiring something of a gold rush all the same. Case in point: this was the best-attended ULS ever.
I took notes, leaving question marks after the buzz words, “Regulatory Aspects, Public Beta, Aggregation, and Financial Fluidity” – phrases that I have yet to Google. After each assessment, a panelist would touch on risk options, tactics, and reasons not to move forward with certain startups.
It was tense watching as some struggled to search for the words to deliver their brand message clearly and effectively, and be able to get buy-in from customers – and the VCs – as well. One of the startups, artaBit, aims to take on Western Union in the money-transfer business, using Bitcoin. “We’re removing exposure to Bitcoin to the customer,” said co-founder Ayoub Naciri. “Neither the sender nor the receiver needs to know about Bitcoin or even be aware of its existence to use the service. We don’t want to have the barrier of having to explain to people what Bitcoin is.”
Overall, it was informational and overwhelming to absorb. I don’t think many are aware of how difficult forming your own company from the ground up is. I certainly didn’t. But, judging from what was evident, it is a combination of talent, ambition, discipline, and liquid assets. I used to believe that is just took elbow grease and capital. Now, I am not so sure. It made me think of actors who are auditioning for a role. Only the best is chosen.
Coming from a liberal background where I have written for film, pop culture, and entertainment based publications, I walked out of that room, still not understanding the conservative nature of what was translated, but taking something that I thought was not possible: business ideas of my own. The knowledge of these venture capitalists was invaluable.
In today’s fiscal climate, it is more than financial backing to secure a startup. It takes insight and marketing your (hopefully) unique vision in an individual way that helps to insure success and trumps your opponent. As for Bitcoin, someone told me that in the early days of the web, it was perceived as being a lot of smoke and mirrors and had an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ aspect to it. With Bitcoin, I guess the emperor has to have something to put into those invisible pockets.
The audience choice winners of the evening, on the startup side:
- Megan Burton - CoinX, which provides a A fast, secure, easy way to buy and sell bitcoins.
- Aric Fedida - OpenWallet, a A cash payment platform that allows you to sell online products, virtual currencies, and prepaid products to cash based populations around the planet, quickly and without risk.
- Shawn Sloves - Atlas ATS, building quality markets for digital currency and going live soon.
The winner for best panelist was Nikhil Kalghatgi of SoftBank Capital.